PR pros predict '08 election

After nearly two years of nonstop campaigning, the public will decide on Tuesday whether to elect John McCain or Barack Obama. PRWeek asked a number of PR professionals and strategists who will win, why, and how the communications strategy helped propel him to victory. Updated 3:30pm.

After nearly two years of nonstop campaigning, the public will decide on Tuesday whether to elect John McCain or Barack Obama. PRWeek asked a number of PR professionals and strategists who will win, why, and how the communications strategy helped propel him to victory.

will continue to accept predictions from the PR community until 3:30 pm today. E-mail, especially if you make the case for McCain. Here were the predictions we compiled for 2004.

Here are thirty responses – only one of which predicted a McCain victory.

Brian Lustig, founder, Lustig Communications - Obama wins.

Heavy early voting in Obama's favor neutralizes modest gains made by McCain in final week of campaign. McCain campaign's attacks on Obama's character and associations only made a small dent as real issue was Obama's experience - and voters became increasingly convinced the Democratic candidate was more than capable. McCain holds Florida, and Ohio goes down to wire but other battleground states swing to Obama and race is called in his favor while East Coast is still awake to savor it. Overexposed cable news pundits wake up Wednesday morning with nothing to do, line up outside CNN hoping to comment on hotly contest Spring Hill Middle School student council battle.

Luke Popovich, VP of external communications, National Mining Association - Communications is often a means of 'making the sale' and you can't do that without a product – HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] and McCain never had a chance, as the margins of Obama's victory will attest.

The Obama campaign recognized its product was a charismatic, secular evangelist. And so, the communications strategy was wisely built around him. He personified the change people were hungering for after a president with a 22% approval rating and an 85% “wrong track” among likely voters. Second, the communications strategy brilliantly built support from the ground up via the Web - both for fundraising and for voluntary field work. Third, the communications message of change was not responsive to nickel-and-dime issues but was transcendent of pet concerns of the various constituencies. This allowed Obama to present an unwavering response that was reassuring to voters. Fourth, the media relations was quick reacting and on target, allowing him to counterpunch effectively (Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright affair) and stay on the offensive (e.g. chaining McCain to Bush).

Ed Cafasso, SVP and MD of MS&L's New England office - Obama should win by four in the popular vote and going away in the Electoral College.

A McCain victory would be an upset of "Dewey Defeats Truman" proportions. Coming into the conventions, the candidates faced basic questions about their readiness to lead. Would young Obama be overmatched and too liberal? Would old McCain be volatile and too conservative? Obama answered the question with clear, confident communications. He was tough, steady, and stuck to a message and a strategy. McCain also answered the question, but in a way that fueled concerns about his own judgment. He veered right, went hyper-negative, and had no apparent strategy until seizing on the Warhol moment of "Joe the Plumber." From a communications standpoint, McCain's camp seemed to be making it up on the fly from Labor Day to Election Day.

Jason Booms, president and CEO of Booms Research & Consul - Barack Obama will win (with 305 electoral votes).

His policy prescriptions on issues such as the economy and healthcare are more attuned to what most Americans want. In addition, Obama's communications strategy reflects a modern dialogue-driven approach; he doesn't talk at voters about himself (e.g. McCain and his self-focused "Maverick" narrative). Obama speaks with voters about their needs, concerns, and hopes. Between Obama's solid campaign and the biggest collapse of the Republican brand since 1974, Obama should garner 51% of the popular vote.

Wes Pederson, president of Wes Pederson Communications - The winner: Barack Obama, with a needed assist by Joe Biden and a profligate use throughout of the media.

The loser: John McCain, given an over-the-cliff push by Sarah Palin and an abrupt loss of funds for all-media messaging. Obama ran a savvy campaign from the start, targeting the Bush administration and focusing on the need for change. In the early stages of his campaign, I thought and wrote that he had peaked too soon. On the contrary, he was just getting warmed up. His campaign against Hillary Clinton was minus the invective expected when a Johnny-Come-Lately tackles an established and liked veteran. His campaign against McCain was run essentially the same, though his negative denunciations of McCain on occasion were mean enough to be badly out of keeping with the good-guy image Obama tried to maintain.

McCain lost because he was the new McCain, different and more desperate than in his campaign against George Bush in 2000. He played the Maverick card too hard, and in the end managed mainly to convince many that he was off-key, off-message, and worse, off balance politically and mentally. His choice of Palin was a disaster, and his ultimate downfall. The two mavericks were a mismatch, never really earning to work together under the campaign yoke.

Doug Pinkham, president, Public Affairs Council - My prediction is that Obama will win easily with well over 300 electoral votes.

While the popular vote will be relatively narrow, Obama's campaign has been incredibly strategic in how it has deployed resources (including Obama's time) in key swing states. As a result, the electoral college vote won't be remotely close. After the election is over, everyone will blame McCain for running a disorganized campaign with mixed messages and constantly shifting priorities. He'll also take a hit from media pundits for his selection of Gov. Palin to be his running mate. All of these accusations have merit. However, in an environment where a Republican president has some of the lowest approval ratings in history and the economy is in the ditch, you also have to marvel at McCain's ability to stay in contention against a politician as gifted as Obama. My sense is that McCain was still the best GOP candidate because polls before the primaries had shown that he had the greatest appeal among independents and Democrats. This was never going to be a great year for Republicans.

Derek LaVallee, VP, public affairs, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide -Obama/Biden will beat McCain/Palin for three overarching reasons:

Palin. This year is an exception to the rule that people only cast their vote for the top of the ticket. She delivered the Republican base that has been leery of McCain, but in doing so, alienated the moderate middle who will ultimately decide the outcome of this election; 2. Disciplined messaging. Team Obama has managed the most regimented proactive and reactive communications campaign in the history of modern politics. McCain's meta-theme of “Country First” disintegrated shortly after the convention, receding to a series of disjointed attacks; 3. Hope trumps fear. Americans are drawn to optimism in ‘change' years: Kennedy 1960, Reagan 1980, Clinton 1992, Bush 2000.

John Hlinko, president and CEO, Grassroots Enterprise - Barack Obama will not only win, he will win in a landslide.

My prediction: 55% Obama, 44% McCain, 1% other. Because Obama chose a consistent, compelling, communications approach - one that emphasized his strengths while gradually allaying concerns over his weaknesses. McCain, on the other hand, took the 'whack-a-mole' approach, jumping erratically from message to message, with no clear rhyme or reason. And even when he did settle on a message, it was tailored to his right-wing base -- logical for a primary, but an utterly bizarre approach for a general election, when you want to draw in swing voters. And frankly, McCain's “Campaign like it's 1949” approach at the end -- obsessing on Marxism, Socialism, etc. - was the icing on the cake... a cake that remained half-baked."

Jeff Mascott, MD, Adfero Group, and an adjunct PR/communications professor at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies - Obama will win.

Unlike recent elections we will know the outcome early. Obama was able from the start to own the word "change." His campaign rarely, if ever, waivered from that brand. Meanwhile, the Republican brand is in the toilet and the party is aimless. Even with Congressional approvals at historic lows, the Democrats will still pick up significant seats. At the presidential level, it is surprising that Obama does not have a larger lead.

Rich Masters, partner, Qorvis Communications - Barack Obama will win an historic, watershed election because—quite simply—he has decisively won the 3 “M's” of politics: Money, Machine and, perhaps most importantly, Message.

From the time he announced his candidacy through the closing arguments this past week, Obama's main theme and message never wavered or changed. McCain's message changed daily. To look at the greatest crisis of the presidential campaign, the collapse of the economy, McCain's message changed literally three times in just one day.

…There is no question that picking Palin won the national news cycle the day Obama was concluding a successful convention. However, while the choice controlled the cycle for a week or two, eventually there had to be a larger reason why she was chosen to support the overarching message of the campaign. There wasn't. So while McCain won the battle, they were still losing the war.

Austin Hice, director of digital content, iPressroom - Barack Obama will win the election.

Aside from his savvy online fundraising and outreach strategies, Obama's campaign may be the first political movement in the world that truly understands how the Internet has changed modern communications. They have been disciplined in the old principles of staying on-message, polished showmanship and knowing their audience, but at the same time they show an acute awareness that transparency and inclusiveness play a vital role in a world where anyone, anywhere can easily find video, audio, and transcripts of any statements they make.

McCain's campaign, in contrast, seems to not understand that the days are gone in which you can say one thing in one town [and] then contradict yourself in the next town without consequence. Divisive, inconsistent speeches used to work, because people were isolated, often only exposed to regional media, speeches and messages tailored specifically to them, but no more. The Internet has given us information, and through it, accountability.

Nick Kalm, founder and president, Reputation Partners - I'm going to buck conventional wisdom and predict that McCain will win -- but as narrowly as Bush did in 2000. If McCain does win, it will be because he and his proxies were successful enough at painting a picture of Obama as a "risky liberal" that they were able to overcome the huge advantage in money, new and passionate voters that Obama was able to generate. The proxies (talk radio hosts, Fox News, 529 groups) are key because McCain's campaign and that of the RNC have been "erratic" (to borrow Obama's phrase).

Regardless of who wins, however, the level of partisan rancor will be so high, it will make people long for the "good old days" of Bush's second term.

Jonathan Winer, SVP, APCO Worldwide - The American voters who wanted change didn't just want a maverick, they actually wanted a change.

In this campaign, an unknown candidate constructed a new strong brand which suggested that he would bring about change safely. An experienced candidate who already had a solid brand systematically damaged that brand until instead of standing for independence, it seemed to represent uncertainty. If Obama indeed wins the election by the biggest margin seen since Bush over Dukakis in 1998, as I predict, he will have won the election through having run a disciplined message campaign that involved few gaffes and solid attention to the basics. These basics were demonstrating that he had a plan to address US economic problems, would not increase taxes on working people, and could make a credible commander in chief, all representing a major change from the unpopular incumbent President. He made the fact that he was “different” a virtue. By comparison, Senator McCain and his campaign chose tactics over strategy.

Paul Raab, SVP and partner, Linhart Public Relations
- An Obama victory is likely.

An interesting lesson for PR people is the contrast between Obama's simple, consistent message of change vs. the McCain campaign's efforts to find a message that connects with voters, which they may not have done until too late.

Jamie Moeller, MD, global public affairs practice, Ogilvy PR Worldwide - Barack Obama will win handily, easily carrying both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

While John McCain may have been easy prey running with the albatross of George W. Bush around his neck and in the face of an historic economic meltdown, Obama and his campaign deserve all the credit. They showed tremendous discipline in developing a non-traditional strategy and sticking with it, even as nervous Beltway Democrats decried the approach. From their focus on the caucuses and winning delegates -- not just momentum -- in the nominating contest, to their relentless message of "change" and their willingness to forgo public financing in order to expand the electoral map and essentially bankrupt the McCain campaign, their strategy and execution have been spectacular. They have created a new roadmap to the White House that will be studied and undoubtedly imitated by many campaigns to come.

Rick French, president & CEO, French/West/Vaughn - Barack Obama will win big, largely because he outflanked John McCain at every turn, and turned a number of red states blue.

Obama's effort to push early voting also paid off as it created strong word of mouth for his campaign and was crucial in moving undecided voters in his direction. Obama was able to cultivate a celebrity persona that was unlike anything we've seen in modern day politics, or at least since JFK. McCain fell short, because he was a poor communicator and orator and wasn't able to adequately articulate why Obama's plans for higher taxes would hurt job growth among small businesses and how that would ultimately impact tens of millions of workers in the middle class. Nor was he able to convince voters he was the centralist candidate many voters were looking for. Sans a middle of the road candidate, many voters defaulted toward the more charismatic and pragmatic Obama, regardless of whether they agreed with, or even understood, many of his political positions.

Richard Levick, president & CEO, Levick Strategic Communications - Barack Obama will win the presidency.

We live in a post-partisan world. Between the 20% of intransigent voters on the right and left whose partisanship garners most of the headlines, the most rapidly growing plurality of voters are the new ones who do not care about ideology. They define themselves by solutions not party or ideology. They care about concrete solutions to concrete problems, with economic problems currently at the top of the list. It is a trend that has been developing over the past decade and that is now in full force because of the extraordinary numbers of young people who have registered, and, since 2000, are voting. These young people are pragmatists. The old class wars are meaningless to them.

Torod Neptune, SVP and global public affairs practice leader, Waggener Edstrom - Barack Obama will win by a handsome margin, particularly including wins for him in several of what have been solid Republican states (e.g. Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina).

Why: Obama has done three things that are critical to winning elections in this day/age:

  • Expanding, not just activating the base… This is no small feat for the Democratic Party, particularly given historical reliance on moderate Republicans and Independents to move in to their column to help win elections…
  • Championing New/Social Media as a strategic advantage… For this entire election cycle, the Obama campaign has been the indisputable leader in capturing, utilizing, and extending the power and influence of new media and social networking sites on political communications and the political advocacy process…
  • Establishing a strong and compelling narrative: First stealing the ‘change' narrative from Hillary Clinton, and then overcoming the John McCain ‘reformer' narrative with a stronger and more believable political brand narrative has been amazing to watch.

Lloyd P. Trufelman, president, Trylon SMR -Barack Obama will win.

From a PR point of view he has run a strong targeted campaign, effectively deploying new media technology such as texting, e-mail, Web, and social media in an innovative manner. His tightly-organized campaign also applied traditional media strategies in new ways, as demonstrated by the road-blocked TV infomercial. In terms of messaging, he has taken the high road and spoken in an authentic, articulate and specific manner about the problems that America is facing and the tough choices that need to be made… a tone that is resonating with the electorate.

David Laufer, principal and founding partner, Forum Strategies and Communications - Obama wins with 300 EVs +/- 6.

Main communications reasons:

1. Right messages at the right time: Iraq during the primaries, the economy as the bottom was dropping out.

2. Major theme of “change” was applied consistently to both messages.

3. Excellent message discipline and consistency, and campaign organization discipline and consistency.

4. The unprecedented success of in creating a politically motivated social network of activists and donors, and novel use of online media for political ads (e.g. in online games).

5. The money to pursue a ground and air campaign in all swing and lean-red states

6. Spokespeople take note: Diligent preparation and a calm, even temperament.

Johanna Schneider, executive director of external relations, Business Roundtable - Barack Obama will win, because he has captured the energy that is at the heart of democracy, and that is participation.

From his groundbreaking use of the Internet for fundraising and for community organizing, to his intergenerational appeal to get involved, he has moved a new generation and motivated an older generation.

Nick Ragone, SVP, director of client development, Ketchum - Barack Obama is going to win, and we'll probably know it at 7:01 pm when the Florida, Georgia, and New Hampshire polls close (among others).

If he wins two of the three, it's almost a certainty he'll win. If he wins all three, game over. At 7:30, Ohio, North Carolina, and West Virginia close, and if Obama wins any of them, it's definitely over. It's going to be a very early night.

Patrick Riccards, CEO, Exemplar Strategic Communications - Barack Obama will win, but it is going to be far closer than many seem to believe. Heading into the final weekend, we still have nearly 10% of likely voters undecided. That means that Obama still hasn't quite sealed the deal with those deciders locked in the middle. At the end of the day, those voters will tip in his favor, believing Obama is speaking more clearly to them on the issues that matter -- like the economy, healthcare, and jobs… Obama reminds us with every commercial, over and over, that he is talking to "us" about "our" issues. McCain's current message of the need for a Republican president to keep a growing Democratic Congress in check is a great message, but may be coming a little too late for it to take hold. But don't rule out a "Dewey Defeats Truman" redux. Something doesn't feel right about the polls and how they've moved over the past two weeks.

Bill McIntyre, EVP, Grassroots Enterprise, and former spokesman of the NRA.- Sen. Barack "Mr. Cool" Obama will win in an electoral vote landslide (300 plus).

Despite an inability for Obama to pivot quickly on tough issues (ex: Rev. [Jeremiah]Wright, Russia/Georgia conflict) he is a superb orator and stayed on message. Plus, his campaign staff marshaled the best integrated online/offline field game since Bush/Cheney '04. Sen. John “Underdog” McCain ran a “chaos campaign” and made risky moves (ex: Palin as VP, threat to postpone debate) that energized the show, but it wasn't enough.

Lynn Hanessian, CEO, Zeno Group - I think Barack Obama will win.

I would be more confident in my prediction if this election had followed any of the trends of yore. But, in fact, over the course of the protracted years of campaigning, the priorities of the country have changed. Sure, hundreds of thousands and likely millions have already cast their votes beginning in October, and we don't know if the ever elusive younger voters will ultimately show up. All the same, it is during the last six weeks when the intense focus has become the economy, stupid. The need among Americans for a more hopeful view to get us out of the economic downturn, a view expressed by the Obama campaign machine, I think has clinched the deal for Barack.

Phillip Hayes, partner, North Bridge Communications - It doesn't take a political scholar to predict Sen. Barack Obama's victory.

But few will discuss one of the biggest differences between the campaigns run by Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore. Obama was the first Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton to aggressively court the rural vote, and he's polling much better in these once conservative strongholds than his predecessors. Ironically, he took a page out of George Bush's playbook by opening campaign offices in one-stop-light towns, building a bipartisan team of surrogates from the farming community, and talking about the mundane trade and farm policies that are often ignored in elections. This time around, it seems like the path to the White House was an unpaved country road.

Laura Gross, president, Scott Circle Communications - Barack Obama will be our next president.

The excitement and enthusiasm he stirred up was just what this country needed right now. His organization on the ground and online was like nothing ever seen before in any other election. Obama ran a smart, disciplined, and leak-free campaign with a brilliant integrated, marketing plan. Using new technology, voters were micro-targeted through mailings, phone calls, text messages, e-mails, and even through video games. For almost two years, Barack Obama, his spokespeople and his surrogates recited the same message for "change" in every speech and interview… It seemed as if for the first time in presidential politics, a campaign executed the same time type of PR and marketing plan that a large corporation would also implement. It also helped that McCain and the Republicans never had a clear message, picked a vice presidential candidate who was not qualified and they weren't nearly as organized.

Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth - I predict that Barack Obama will win the election on Tuesday based in large part to his abilities as a communicator.

Research has shown that while content is important, body language and tone of voice account for over 90% of what gets communicated to an audience. Barack appears confident in both body and voice, and displays all of the key attributes of a successful speaker. In addition, I think Obama's steady and calm approach throughout versus John McCain's "Maverick" strategy became a lot more compelling over the last few weeks during the financial crisis.

Chris Bechtel, VP products and services, iPressroom - I predict Barack Obama will win the election on Tuesday in large part due to his campaign's effective use of the Internet as an outreach tool.

From buying Google pay-per-click ads to drive people to specific pages on the campaign site, to counter charges that Obama is a "Muslim" to its powerful "neighbor to neighbor" grassroots outreach tool (volunteers can sign up online and get a list of undecided voters to call, complete with a script and tracking tools to report results), the campaign has garnered far larger online audiences (more than 6x the size of McCain's) and used the size of this audience to raise record sums of money from more than 1 million individual donors. This fundraising edge enabled Obama to buy primetime television time and top the network primetime ratings, garnering an American Idol-like audience of 33.5 million viewers, more then the World Series and 1.2 million more than Fox, CBS, and NBC drew the previous week. The power of the Web gave the Obama campaign a significant edge in traditional mainstream TV advertising, and that is a fundamental shift in how we have seen political campaigns operate in the past.

Brian Reich, principal, EchoDitto - Obama wins, and wins big.

It was a favorable year for Democrats no matter what, with a wildly unpopular president, challenges in the economy, two expensive and moderately (to very) unpopular wars, a divided and dysfunctional Republican Party (very different from the one that dominated the last two Presidential cycles), and a general feeling among citizens that we deserve better, and real change is long overdue.

Still, the Obama campaign knew it couldn't rely on trends alone -- so they built a massive campaign operation and used technology to make it run faster and smarter than anyone had ever been able to before. The Obama campaign didn't win because they had a big Facebook presence, announced the VP pick via text message, or raised hundreds of millions of dollars online - though many will try to claim that. Senator Obama won because his campaign used technology and the Internet to identify, engage, and ultimately turn out the voters they needed in key states. They spread their campaign message further than ever before, and spread it across so many different channels that you couldn't avoid it. But most importantly, the campaign (and the many groups that formed or mobilized to help it) registered millions of new voters, organized thousands of phone banks and house parties (many from laptops, or even through iPhones) to connect real people in conversation about the election, and delivered volunteers to key swing states to help knock on doors and deliver voters to the polls.

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